Poland attempts to lay pogrom shame to rest

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Kielce - Ever since he was a boy, Cezary Stackurski has been haunted by the image of a heavily pregnant woman running away from an angry mob hurling sticks, rocks and bits of radiators at her.

The date was 4 July 1946 and the place, the southern Polish town of Kielce. By the end of the day, 42 people had been slaughtered and many more maimed in the most notorious of the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that swept Poland in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Aged just 11 at the time, Mr Stackurski watched in appalled fascination as the victims - many of them survivors of Nazi concentration camps - were clubbed or trampled to death. "I remember the chants, 'Beat the Jew, kill the bloodsuckers'," he said. "I remember the pregnant woman lying in a pool of her own blood and the cries of a Jewish man killed while clinging to a tree."

For decades the people of Kielce collectively tried to suppress the memory of the pogrom, claiming that instead of being fuelled by anti-Semitism it had been provoked to serve some obscure political cause. Now, 50 years on, they are trying to acknowledge what really happened and, more controversially, to apologise for it.

Yesterday's 50th anniversary of the pogrom was marked by a solemn ceremony at the scene of the killings, while in Warsaw, MPs observed a minute's silence in honour of the dead.

On Sunday, for the first time ever, representatives of Jewish organisations from all over the world will be travelling to Kielce to take part in further commemorations alongside Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz.

After so many years of ill will and recriminations, there is hope on both sides that the joint ceremony could mark a break with the past and a new start for Polish-Jewish relations.

Certainly, that is the aim in Warsaw, where the government has shown increasing sensitivity to Jewish concerns, underlined earlier this year by its swift action to block the proposed construction of a supermarket outside the former concentration camp at Auschwitz.

It is also the aim in Kielce, long ashamed of its reputation as an epicentre for Polish anti-Semitism. "Instead of trying to conceal the events of 50 years ago, we want them to be brought out into the open," said Tadeusz Wiacek, author of To Kill The Jew, one of the spate of books on the pogrom to have appeared since the end of communist rule in 1989. "Having admitted them, we now hope for some sort of reconciliation.''

Of the three million Jews that lived in Poland before the war, only 200,000 survived. Unbelievably, they soon found themselves targeted by Poles envious of their former prosperity.

In the first two years after the war, hundreds of Polish Jews were killed in anti-Semitic violence which reached its peak in Kielce. Half of those who remained emigrated to Palestine.

It is still far from clear what prompted the pogrom, but the initial spark was a rumour that an eight-year-old Polish boy had been kidnapped by a group of Jewish concentration camp survivors who had allegedly threatened to use him in a ritual sacrifice.

Despite glaring inconsistencies in the boy's story, an incensed crowd, including hundreds of steelworkers, gathered outside the hostel housing the Jews and broke in to begin an orgy of violence which was effectively left unchecked by the authorities for several hours.

So shocking were the killings, that, in a bid to cover them up, the town took refuge in a number of conspiracy theories, saying they had been provoked by Moscow, by the secret services, by anti-communist underground fighters, by international Zionists and even by the Vatican. None of the theories was ever proved, and throughout the communist period, the subject was simply taboo.

There are many in Kielce who would prefer to keep things that way. Some have piled abuse on those seeking to come clean about the past, while others have resorted to anti-Semitic graffiti.

But for many it is a relief that the lid has been lifted on the guilty secret they held so long.

"Only those with no conscience at all still want to deny the past," said Jadwiga Bedla, an activist in the Solidarity trade union. "It is an indisputable fact that innocent people were killed here and it is only right that we apologise. At last, after all these years, the truth has surfaced."

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